Dwarfing Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined, Singles’ Day is the world’s biggest shopping event, generating tens of billions of dollars in sales each year. But while the astounding amount of shopping takes place in the digital realm, the goods that are bought are physical — and so is the plastic waste that comes with them.

On last year’s Singles’ Day, ecommerce portals in China generated more than 1.3 billion shipping orders, according to the State Post Bureau — up by about 25% from the previous year. That’s equivalent to every single American putting in four orders in one day.

And every single shipped item is swathed in plastic wrappers, tape and cardboard boxes. Together, they made up some 9.4 million tons of packaging materials, weighing the equivalent of 130 million adults, according to a new report from Greenpeace and Break Free From Plastic China.

The problem is poised to get worse, as ecommerce giants like Alibaba, JD.com and Pinduoduo seek to grow by turning to rural areas in search of millions of untapped customers.

By Monday morning, just nine hours into Singles’ Day 2019, Alibaba already raked in over US$22 billion in sales — two-thirds of last year’s final tally. Smartphone giant Huawei said it only took a minute to beat its whole-day November 1st sales last year. Rival Apple took 10 minutes to beat its full-day sales on Alibaba’s Tmall last year by seven times.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

Around 99% of plastic delivery packaging isn’t being recycled in China, according to the Greepeace report. Instead, it's discarded with other garbage, which is either incinerated or dumped in landfills.

Workers prepare packages for delivery during Singles’ Day in 2016. (Picture: AFP)

China, a country with 1.4 billion people, is well aware of its escalating waste problem and the need for more rigorous recycling.

This year, Shanghai began requiring residents to sort their trash into four categories: Kitchen waste, hazardous waste, recyclables and residual waste. Individuals who fail to do so risk fines of up to US$29. Beijing is also experimenting with similar measures, installing facial recognition cameras on bins in some neighborhoods.

“The central government chose Shanghai as an example of how to do waste sorting, and is calling on other cities to learn from it,” said a Shanghai official.

Couriers and ecommerce companies have also emphasized their efforts in curbing waste.

A Shanghai resident throws trash into different garbage bins. (Picture: Alice Yan/South China Morning Post)

Alibaba says its delivery affiliate Cainiao and partners have established tens of thousands of recycling stations nationwide to collect used cardboard boxes. It’s also observing next Wednesday’s “National Card Box Recycling Day” by setting up collection points throughout Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou.

JD.com says that since it launched a green initiative in 2017, its logistics arm has reduced the use of disposable packaging by 27,000 tons. It’s also deployed recyclable boxes across 30 cities and switched to using thinner strips of adhesive tapes.

As China works toward recycling more of its waste, the rest of the world is also facing a reality check.

After years of accepting imported plastic waste from the US, Australia, Japan and other countries, China stopped the practice at the beginning of this year. It might just be the beginning: Beijing is pondering plans to ban all solid waste imports as early as next year.